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Can India be the net-zero champion the Global South needs?

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
August 11, 2023

As extreme climatic events such as the wildfires that ravaged the Hawaiian island of Maui and the bitter winter in Afghanistan dominate headlines, while being referred to by many as the new normal, it is a clear signal that climate change has taken hold.

The current trajectory of carbon emissions puts the world on track for catastrophic events that impact both people and the planet. The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that only a limited window of time remains before temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and once this threshold is passed, the impact of climatic events will be even more severe.

Against the backdrop of this looming crisis and the inability of the Global North and South to come together in addressing the challenge, the concept of a “just transition” is becoming increasingly popular in climate policy discussions.

Reaching the global net-zero goal of the Paris Agreement require mass-scale transformation of industries and economies, inevitably bringing job losses as economies scale down carbon-emitting industries. Measures to achieve global carbon neutrality will have varying effects on different social groups and regions, which legitimises the need for a just green transition.

In a 2018 report, the International Labour Organization projected that the scaling down of resource-intensive industries would lead to about 6 million job losses. However, the growth of energy-efficient sectors, such as those involved in the production of greener buildings and electric vehicles, could create 24 million jobs, with implementation of sustainable practices and just transition policies.

Transitioning to a net-zero economy involves significant investments in new infrastructure and technologies. Thus, the real challenge of the transition will be in emerging and developing nations, where the financing needs for net-zero and climate action are the greatest while access to and the cost of capital can be a bottleneck.

During a two-day forum on financing an equitable transition, organised in Bangkok in July by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, representatives from governments, financial institutions, academia, think tanks and the private sector discussed the need to inject the concept of a just transition into sectors such as agriculture and transport, in addition to the energy sector.

Some countries are already changing their industrial policies. China, for instance – considered the manufacturing hub of the world – is heavily invested in energy efficiency and has launched policies encouraging Chinese manufacturers to shift to green technologies.

In Southeast Asia, Malaysia, for example, rolled out its National Green Technology Policy as early as 2009. This week, it further announced an ambitious plan to set up a multimillion-dollar seed fund to turn the country’s energy transition into a growth driver.

In the Middle East, the Moroccan government encourages foreign investment for solar-powered projects and has been supporting industries shifting to renewable energy sources.

As holder of the G20 presidency this year, India has an opportunity to shape future climate diplomacy, by steering G20 nations towards more aggressive climate targets, sustainable practices and the promotion of renewable energy.

In fact, India has already started taking the leader in climate action. In July, it hosted the meeting of G20 energy ministers in Goa, which stressed the need for accountable consumption and production to ensure an equitable transition.

India has also been advocating for Africa’s inclusion in the G20, as part of the country’s commitment to bridging the global North-South divide by amplifying voices of developing nations on global platforms.

India’s membership in major groupings such as the Quad and Brics, as well as its role in the founding of the International Solar Alliance and Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, strengthens the country’s aspiration to be a climate policy leader.

Having projected itself as one of the leading voices of the Global South, India now has to rise to the occasion to demonstrate it can indeed bridge the climate divide by making the G20, whose economies account for about 80 per cent of global carbon emissions, subscribe to an energy transition that is just, fair and equitable, and does not make the marginalised even more vulnerable because of the impacts of climate change.

India this year surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. But, even though it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it is also one of the most climate-vulnerable nations – based on the Global Climate Risk Index, India was the 7th most affected country in 2019. According to other studies, up to 4.5 per cent of India’s GDP is at risk by 2030 due to climate change, and the country could see a loss of US$35 trillion over the next 50 years.

There will be domestic challenges to tackling climate change, including resistance from industries to transition to a low-carbon economy due to cost concerns, a lack of political will and uneven access to financial and technical resources. But, to win the battle, global climate commitments need to be met by major economies like India, the US and China.

India must use its G20 presidency to build a consensus between the North and South on climate change initiatives based on the principles of a just energy transition. As the experience of previous COP climate summits show, this is easier said than done when the very definition of “just” has different connotations in the East and the West, with funds coming up short and commitment talk not matched by action.

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